First person perspective

I love books written in 1st person [First person, a grammatical person (e.g., "I", "we", "me", "us"), according to Wikipedia.]. Autobiographies, most travel books, and many novels are written as 1st person perspectives. In my mind, the advantages (A) of 1st person outweigh the disadvantages (D).

In 1st person, the writing seems fresh and spontaneous (A), unfiltered through any mind except the narrator's. Of course in fiction, this spontaneity is false, as there is no "first person" except the author, who's making it all up anyway. But in travel writing, first person adds to the reader's experience by making it easy to imagine being the traveler, as the reader feels as if he or she is getting inside the traveler's mind. Paul Theroux is a good example of a travel writer who makes no apparent effort to prevent the reader from living inside his thoughts and actions, be they flattering to Theroux or not.

Paul Theroux by Rupal Agrawal
[Of course, Theroux's "1st person," whom the reader assumes to be Theroux himself, could be a complete fiction; who can say what really goes on in another person's mind? This is a (D) to the reader who wants facts only, or suspects that the narrator's candor is a sham.]

On the (D) side, first person in a novel is strictly limiting. The reader can only understand the plot, setting, mood, theme and writing style as the narrator sees it. If the narrator is lying, or mentally challenged, or emotionally disturbed, then the reader has to play a guessing game to figure out what's really going on.

Author William Faulkner in 1954 by Carl Van Vechten
Imagine Jane Eyre written from the 1st person perspective of Rochester's wife who lives in the attic.

Jane Eyre, 1847 edition, by F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920
Another (A) of 1st person is the ability to make an emotional connection to the narrator. The Diary of Anne Frank comes to mind. Anne's feelings about her life resonate within the reader--Anne's secret captivity is strange to most readers, but her falling in love is familiar to almost everyone.

Anne Frank at school, 1940
The (D) of 1st person, however, is that the reader may not be able to identify with the narrator, making the book dull and difficult to read. Many, many autobiographies suffer from this (D); the person may have had a fascinating life, but his or her inability to reach out to the reader will make the book unreadable. Or the narrator is repulsive to many readers: think of Mein Kampf, written in 1st person by Adolf Hitler.

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D.
The dilemma of the (A) and (D) of 1st person is the dilemma of all efforts at communication: the challenge of taking what is in one mind (the writer's) and transferring it to another mind (the reader's). This challenge has existential, psychological philosophical, cultural, phenomenological, gender-related, generational, geographical, social, metaphorical, historical, religious, and linguistic dimensions that are simply magnificent--as Basil Fawlty's psychiatrist guest remarked of Fawlty Towers, "There's enough material here for an entire conference." Or for an entire lifetime.
A psychiatrist with intense, bulging eyes. Colour process print by C. Josef, c. 1930
Thus do writers fearlessly jump into a vast sea of meaning, possible meaning, pseudo-meaning and misunderstanding. Yet I still like 1st person, for the thrill of burrowing deep inside the psyche of a stranger. Or so it seems.


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